BY MICHELLE ZABAT
On Filipina women and their role in the popularization of Filipino food in America
Filipinos make up the second-largest Asian American demographic in the United States, yet their culture is curiously underrepresented—especially in the culinary realm. Despite Americans’ unwavering appetites for Asian food, Philippine cooking has historically been conspicuously absent from their late-night cravings. Unlike cuisines like Thai, Chinese, and Japanese food, it is a rare sight to see a commercial restaurant serving Filipino food to the masses.
In recent years, however, the rise of global media has provided an avenue for Filipino cuisine to gain ground in the power structures, culture, and celebrity comprising the American foodscape. It has also allowed Filipina women to break out of traditionally feminine roles—of loving mother, of dutiful wife, of submissive female—both in the U.S. and abroad. The popularization of Filipino food has been carried out largely by Filipina women who occupy roles that comply with, push the boundaries of, and defy traditional gender and cultural expectations.
Stereotypical and traditional expectations for women are powerful, both in the United States and in the Philippines. The assumed obligation of women to feed their families has tied down American women for centuries. However, it has arguably affected Filipina women even more strongly. In a developing country where opportunities are slim to begin with, the ability of Filipinas to pursue endeavors outside of the home is even more constrained. Combined with the gendered expectations of a woman’s role in the home, which are ingrained into Filipino culture in subtle ways that range from food and cooking to presentation and physical appearance, breaking out of traditional roles is even more difficult than it might be in the United States.
But Filipinas are fighting back against cultural norms and feminine expectations. Some actions are intentional; others are a product of American and Filipino economies and cultures. Regardless, the advent of worldwide digital media is helping Filipinas bring their food and fighting spirit to light in a world that has not seen it before.
From shunning the stereotypically feminine appetite to challenging traditional stipulations about where women and Filipino food belong, Filipinas across the globe are taking charge of their lives and their cooking. They are defying cultural and gendered expectations in a variety of roles. This exhibit explores media representations of the myriad roles Filipina women perform—from domestic cooks to head chefs—as they simultaneously fulfill and defy conventional gender roles and traditional “American” food values, tastes, and preferences.
1. Women and Children at a Party, 1920s-1930s
This picture, from the digital archives of the Filipino American National Historical Society, depicts Filipina women where they have been traditionally confined: in the home, cooking in the kitchen. Filipino parties are quite food-centric, and
the wife of the home is expected to do the cooking for them.
Additionally, although it is the women and children standing around the table filled with food, they most likely were not the first to eat. Per traditional patriarchal standards, the men, assumedly out of frame of the camera, would have probably gotten the first taste. This form of “respect” for the men is one that is deeply ingrained into Filipino culture, and even years after this photo was taken, in many ways, the expectation has not changed. Also, Filipino food itself has long been confined to home kitchens, in large part due to food shaming of traditional dishes. But the food that these women are cooking and eating is an act of rebellion against the expectations for feminine appetites.
Usually full of fatty meat, oily fish, excessive sugar, and heavy carbohydrates, Filipino food is a far cry from the frilly, scare appetites expected of women. Fried lumpia, plates of pancit, and pots of adobo are by no means “light” or “low-calorie,” as feminine appetite might stipulate, but they are delicious—and many Filipina women privilege that flavor over their figure. The indulgence is a small victory in the early years of the twentieth century, brought to light by the preservation and archiving of photos by the FANHS into a digital format.
2. Street Vendor in Cebu, n.d.
Street food is by no means a delicacy in the Philippines, but for many Filipinos, selling and surviving off of street food is the only financially viable option. Puso, rice wrapped in a triangle of coconut leaves and boiled in hot water, is a common sight on the streets of Cebu, one of the most developed provinces in the archipelago. Despite the expanded opportunities here in comparison to other areas of the country, street cooking might still be the only economic opportunity people are able to access.
In a Philippine foodscape that presents economic disparities and differential access much like that of the US, making a living off of or subsisting off of cheap food like puso is all people can do to survive. But although women like this one are driven to take their stereotypically feminine role in the kitchen out to the streets due to economic necessity, there is a little bit of power derived from being able to support a family. They might still be cooking, but now it means so much more than simply filling an obligation to the feminine stereotype.
Breadwinning by a woman challenges the hegemonic masculinity that places financial responsibility in the realm of male ability. Buko, turon, and taho are no longer simply merienda, but a method of resistance. News reporters have broadcast the images of these women and their food across the world, and, although it is in the smallest and most unintentional of ways, it has enabled Filipina women to take their food and their skills out of the confines of the home kitchen and into the world.
3. The Ticket to Duties Abroad, 2015
In 2015, the BBC reported on a curious economic trend in the Philippines. Although the economy is growing rapidly, there still aren’t enough jobs to go around. Consequently, thousands of young Filipinas are trained and sent internationally every year as domestic cooks. Many are sent to the United States, but even more are sent to other places around the globe.
Long after the American “servant crisis,” that catapulted Aunt Jemima and other conveniences to the top of housewives’ grocery lists, the Internet is facilitating the arrival of Filipina women in the States, forced into foreign kitchen roles in an attempt to help support their families in the Philippines. Much like the street vendor, these women do not have an astounding amount of choice in the decision to leave behind their homes and families to go abroad. Many journalists and bloggers have documented the pain and sadness behind young Filipinas’ decisions to leave their homes. However, they have also documented the optimism and determination that pushes these women to make that choice, despite how difficult it might be.
But also much like the street vendor, their job has them doing a stereotypically feminine task—cooking—to fill the stereotypically male role of earning a living. They both obey and defy gender roles through a task that allows them to “perform gender,” as Judith Butler puts it, in a way that is all their own. And unlike the street vendors, these women are able to seek personal opportunities in the States, while also increasing the Filipino presence in America at the same time.
4. Ladies and Lechon, n.d.
Lechon, the national dish of the Philippines, is a decadent delight, traditionally served at parties or on holidays. In spite of the undeniably delicious flavor of a fire-roasted whole pig, it has been slow to make its way into Filipino-American cuisine. The sense of food shame that pervades Filipino-American culture is a strong causative agent of this trend; many of the traditional Filipino dishes are decidedly “un-American” in ingredients and taste, and the nutritional and flavor profile certainly does not fit into the expected “feminine” appetite.
However, food blogs and restaurant review sites are bringing lechon out of the U.S.’s food-shaming shadows—and what a wonder both lechon and its cooks are to behold. Cut from the fattiest parts of the pig and fried in copious amounts of oil, it is by no means a health food—but it is one of the most satisfying foods to consume. Filipina women are breaking out of their home kitchens in America and bringing their crunchy, fatty, meaty food with them to upscale American restaurants like the one pictured here.
The Philippine foodscape has conditioned many Filipinos to know how to work with the cheapest ingredients and the most meager supplies; as a result, Filipinos know how to make even the most mundane meals into something satisfying and delicious, despite how the final product might visually appear. Filipinas are bringing this talent to the United States, one restaurant at a time. By doing so, they upend the concept of “chef” as a male job, challenge norms for both American and feminine food, sever the tie between small, dainty appetites and female beauty, and defy the privileged notion that food must look good in order for it to taste good.
5. Purple Yams, Pretty Blogs, 2010
Successful American food blogs show not only visual similarities—clean interfaces, sharp food photography, beautiful smiling bloggers—but also gastronomic similarities. Although they can range from healthy to indulgent or from budget to extravagant, most present menu offerings that are generally agreeable with and familiar to the American palate. Pastry blogs, especially, tend to stick to the delicate, feminine recipes that are so characteristic of stereotypical female appetites and the commonly privileged European tradition.
Nastassia Johnson, a young Filipina from LA, challenges these assumptions about American dessert that are upheld by the whiteness and traditional femininity inherent in the “domestic ideology” that has guided femininity since the Victorian age. Johnson runs Let Me Eat Cake, a brightly colored dessert blog that aligns with many other similar blogging entities, but uses it as a platform to pull Filipino food into a food realm it has long been excluded from.
This cupcake recipe calls for ube, a purple yam that is prevalent in the Philippines but regarded with skepticism in the American market. Many other traditional Filipino desserts use ingredients that are not heavily represented in American supermarkets, such as cassava, sweet beans, and tamarind. However, despite the lack of representation and stigma that surrounds them, Filipino desserts are among the most delicious and most creative in the world. Johnson uses her media platform to normalize foreign Filipino food in the U.S., despite both the American cultural norms that deride it and the frilly, feminine pastry market that has historically excluded it.
6. Home Cook to Head Restaurateur, 2015
The Internet not only allows digital recipe sharing to transform the American foodscape but it also facilitates the discovery and popularization of Filipino chefs and restaurants. Although Filipino food has become more prevalent in the United States over recent years, fear of food-shaming still remains at the forefront of many Filipino minds. In addition, Filipino food is widely known among Filipinos to be best when cooked at home. This both contributes to the lack of Filipino restaurants in the United States and perpetuates the public and self-imposed shaming of Filipino cuisine.
Nicole Ponseca knows these things far too well—but in spite of them, she has opened two Filipino restaurants in New York City’s trendy East Village. Standing in stark contrast to the Instagram-worthy ice cream stores and posh little coffee shops are two tiny oases of Filipino cuisine, in all their aromatic, greasy glory. Despite the food shame, Ponseca is determined to be a successful restaurateur and to champion Filipino food—and that makes her a champion for both women in the kitchen and for Filipino culture.
At her restuarants, feminine food expectations go ignored in favor of serving food kamayan style (food spread across a table lined with banana leaves, silverware and plates be damned) and putting balut (fertilized duck embryo) in front of New Yorkers of all backgrounds—much to the delight of The New York Times columnists. Her defiance of expectations, from culture to food to cooking role, makes her a champion for female chefs and Filipina women across the United States and abroad.
7. White House, Brown Cooking, 2009
Born and raised in the Philippines, Cristeta Comerford immigrated to the United States at 23 and took the first cooking job she could find. Today, she is the Executive Chef of the White House for the Obama administration, serving as the first woman and first person of Asian descent to hold the role. In America’s professional kitchen culture, which Rebecca Swenson observes is overflowing with machismo, masculinity, and intolerance towards women, Comerford’s accomplishments are no small feat.
Early on in her position, news media swept her up, and the determination, heart, and positivity she spread via television and interviews uplifted femininity and Filipinos across the nation. Beating out the hordes of male cooks that were eligible for the position is a victory for women in itself. However, in addition to championing elite kitchens as a feminine domain, Comerford also asserts the rightful place of Filipino food—in all its fatty, filling glory—on the plates of the highest-ranking government officials, both American and foreign.
She is a beacon of hope for women and Filipinos everywhere. The proof that a Filipina woman can cook in the highest house of government is a large leap towards feminine progress in the cooking world. Through her cooking, she is able to bring together people from all types of cultural backgrounds, creating a temporary home for political figures from other countries who are visiting the United States. And the ultimate show of professional female cooking prowess and Filipino food popularization might be Comerford’s report that “[President Obama] loves Filipino cuisine.”
8. finding “filipino,” one bite at a time, 2015
Finally, young American-born Filipinos are playing a quiet (but no less important) role in spreading Filipino culture and food within the United States. The Filipino diaspora pushed many Filipinos to the United States, where they raised their children with shame about their Filipino heritage. As a result, many American-born Filipinos are left to interpret and adapt to both American and Filipino cultures on their own. Interestingly, there is significant variation in the way individual Filipino-American women experience Filipino culture and interact with it.
Looking at myself as a single case study, Filipino food has impacted my life and identity in a way that extends far beyond simple gastronomy. Filipino culture sees women primarily as fixtures in the home, intended to be wives and mothers instead of workers and warriors. My mother was raised in this culture, and it shaped the beliefs that she would push onto me as a child—that I needed to be “demure, so men will like you,” and “thin, so men will think you’re attractive.” The contrast between constant body policing and the reality of the heavy, fatty Filipino food we would often eat at home bred strong psychological conflicts that eventually contributed to my ongoing experience with eating disorders.
As a child, my mother imparted to me (whether consciously or unconsciously) a sense of shame about my Filipino heritage, particularly about our food. Although we would often eat home-cooked Filipino food for dinner, she would never let me take the leftovers to school for lunch. “The White kids will make fun of you,” she would tell me. “They’ll think it smells bad.” Both this example of food shaming and others were pervasive in my experience as a child, and it contributed to the unease and discomfort I felt about my ethnicity throughout most of my life.
But now, with college, newfound freedom, and food studies, I am fighting back. I am reclaiming my heritage, smelly food and all. Many college-aged Filipinas are doing the same, breaking out of the mindset that their immigrant parents have instilled in them as a result of internalized racism. The Internet, social media, and global news are allowing us to learn more about our culture and spread our culture more than ever before. Our individual actions might not seem like grand, sweeping gestures, but collectively, our actions, our words, and our foods are elevating Filipino identity to what it should be: a badge of honor, worn proudly, enthusiastically, and—most of all—happily.